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Experts say it depends on how you define “aggression.” (Photo: Eleanor Bentall/Corbis)
Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking is one of the most renowned geniuses of our time. He’s also one of the most insightful and, as it follows, quotable. And earlier this week, Hawking— portrayed by best actor Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything — dropped a doozy.
While speaking at the Science Museum in London, The Independent reported, Hawking said: “The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression. … It may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory or a partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all.”
Hawking’s observation is poignant, but how true is it? Yahoo Health talked with leading psychology experts to explore whether or not aggression can indeed destroy us all. Or if not us all, could it destroy you?
Anger Versus Aggression
Experts were quick to point out the slight (but significant) semantic difference between aggression and anger. While the concepts are easily muddled, a distinction must be made between the two, says anger management expert Mitch Abrams, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with New Jersey state prisons and the author of Anger Management in Sport.
“Aggressiveness has a lot of meanings to it,” Abrams tells Yahoo Health. “I believe very strongly that aggressiveness really is about the tenacity with which you go after your goals — not about harming someone else. That’s a specific subset of aggression.”
Psychologist William Pollack, PhD, author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, adds that aggression can be “a necessary piece of the strength and will to get things accomplished and survive.” But over the past several thousand years, survival has (generally) not required being harmful toward others.
In fact, being aggressive can be a positive quality, Pollack tells Yahoo Health. It helps us achieve our goals, be successful, and make a positive change in the world around us.
Anger: A Misunderstood Emotion
Focusing on anger for a moment, Abrams stresses that we should avoid shunning anger as a categorically “bad” emotion. “There’s no such thing as a good or bad emotion,” he says.
Abrams has spent a good deal of his career counseling inmates in the New Jersey prison system. And he says that one of the keys is helping individuals acknowledge their emotions and validating those emotions rather than seeing them as weaknesses. “Then we can help people realize if the emotion helps or hurts with what they’re trying to do,” Abrams says.
“Anger is like fire,” he continues. “I like a good steak. I can’t make a good steak on a big fire. If I can’t adjust the flame, I’m going to burn the steak. Anger isn’t the problem, it’s learning how to adjust it to what you need.”
Pollack concurs that anger isn’t necessarily negative. “It would be strange if you never got angry,” he says. But, Pollack continues, you can feel angry without acting out or causing harm to others.
“The problem isn’t the thought,” Abrams says. “The problem is not acknowledging that thought and then allowing it to dictate poor behavior.”
The Health Risks Of Anger And Aggression
Over time or at extreme levels, anger can indeed be a destructive force on the body. High levels of anger are linked with an increased risk for a number of cardiovascular problems, including heart disease, heart attacks, and high blood pressure, studies show.
Research published in January of this year even found that people who posted lots of angry tweets had an elevated risk for heart disease. In fact, the association was so powerful that the study authors said Twitter behavior could be a better heart disease predictor than known cardiovascular risk factors such as smoking and diabetes.
Related: Are You An Angry Tweeter? Time To See A Cardiologist
Recently an Australian study found that heart attack risk raises eightfold in the hours following an angry outburst, compared to the risk of heart attack in the period after normal anger levels. The study’s researchers told Yahoo Health that the findings suggest episodes of severe anger could actually play a role in triggering a heart attack.
Is Aggression Out Of Control?
Hawking suggests that aggression was once useful but is now destructive. Abrams, however, makes the observation that destructive aggression has been common throughout history — just look at slavery during Biblical times and in the past 500 years. “We have been a remarkably self-destructive species for a long time,” he says. “This is not new. People abusing power and abusing others has been going on for as long as humans exist.”
It is, of course, nearly impossible to quantify the level of aggression in a society — let alone to separate harmful forms of aggression from tenacity. But Abrams highlights that crime rates are at their lowest levels in decades, according to recent statistics. (Demographic shifts and changes in law enforcement and incarceration are to credit for the decline, some experts say.)
The Smart Way To Deal With Anger And Aggression
While aggression may or may not be destroying society — we encourage you to continue that debate in the comments — it can be destructive for certain people, or in certain situations. Translation: Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Here are a few key takeaways from experts.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be powerful. But remember that you can be powerful by dominating others, Pollack says, or you can be powerful by encouraging and uplifting those around you. Choose the latter.
If you’re feeling angry, ask yourself if it might be masking another emotion, such as sadness. This is especially common in men, Pollack says. Getting back in touch with your true feelings may sound corny, but it’s important so that anger doesn’t become your default — and so that you can effectively communicate with others.
Acknowledge what you’re feeling, then choose how you act on it. And yes, it is OK to act on it — productively. In sports, for example, “We’ve seen lots of people use anger as fuel,” Abrams says, “as a motivator to be driven to success where other people might quit.”